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Person next to a long pipe.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
A member of the heat-trace project crew works on a utility line at McMurdo Station. The National Science Foundation allocated $3 million from its portion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to replace the station's heat-trace system. The project will save about $300,000 in energy costs per year.

Piping hot

Heat-trace project represents major improvement in McMurdo utilities

The popular image of Antarctica is of blinding snowstorms on some flat, white plateau where parka-clad adventurers brave the elements in the name of science or discovery.

The reality is at once much more mundane and remarkable for a crew of men and women working to repair and replace a heat-trace system along McMurdo Station’s External U.S. government site aboveground waterworks. The wind and weather, of course, are just as bitter.

“Every bit of our work is outside. Every day, six days a week. It’s outside. We’re not going inside to do stuff,” said Mark Neeley, construction coordinator for the multiyear project. “That damn wind is tougher than the cold. We’ve had steady wind all year long.”

Electrician Chris Bombard said the temperatures were in the negative 40s Fahrenheit when he and the rest of the electricians, plumbers and construction laborers arrived in early October to begin work on the second year of the heat-trace project.

“Most of it is worn out. It’s time for it to get changed,” he said.

The National Science Foundation External U.S. government site, which manages the U.S. Antarctic Program External U.S. government site, allocated $3 million from its portion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) External U.S. government site to replace the heat-trace system. [See previous article: Stimulus money.] The electrical system carries heat along some nine miles of plumbing to keep the water from freezing in the pipes — an obvious concern in Antarctica.

“If that water freezes up, there’s a ripple effect. It can affect experiments, buildings, and fire systems,” said Neeley, who worked in Antarctica from 1995-2002, returning this season for the first time in eight years.

Snow on a hillside.
Photo Credit: Stephen Nichols
The heat-trace crew works through snowy conditions.
People pull cable in front of buildings.
Photo Credit: Mark Neeley
The crew pulls cable in front of some of the McMurdo dorm buildings.

But when work began last year, it quickly became apparent that more than just the electrical system would need to be replaced.

The decades-old utility system snakes through the research station across dozens of buildings, under bridges, and all the way down to the sea ice. Pipes and electrical lines have been refitted and spliced together, growing organically as the station spread across its corner of Ross Island.

“It’s mismatched. You have different brands, different wattages, some with different voltages,” Neeley said. “It grew as the station grew. It’s probably been patched up for the last 15 years.”

“The stimulus money was a good opportunity,” he added, the funds buying supplies from American companies and hiring stateside employees to work in Antarctica.

So what started as a replacement of the heat-trace electrical system also turned into a significant plumbing project, requiring the replacement of more than a mile of pipe. In addition, the current configuration didn’t have a good way to isolate and drain the lines, in the case of a problem, without affecting large sections of the system, Neeley noted. That’s also being addressed.

“Sometimes you were shutting down runs of pipe that were hundreds of feet long,” he said.

On a mid-summer week when the winds abated and the temperatures spiked into the low 40s, the heat-trace crew could be found running heat-trace line through four-inch insulation covering a wastewater pipe not far from the station’s V-roofed chapel.

Electrician Scott LaMee said each heat-trace pull requires the team to shut down a section of line, moving as quickly as possible to get service back on with minimal interruptions.

“It kind of turns out to be a series of emergency service calls,” he said.

Said Neeley, “You’re not dictated by a nine-hour day. You’re dictated by getting in and being able to turn it on. You wouldn’t leave it exposed to the elements down here. That wouldn’t be a good thing.”

Guy watches another in a hole.
Photo Credit: Stephen Nichols
Pipes run through every nook and cranny of McMurdo Station.

The new system will also be much smarter and more energy efficient. The piecemeal nature of the previous utility infrastructure meant there were multiple electrical panels around the station, home to more than a thousand people in the summer. A red light on the utility lines was the only way to track down a problem.

“It’s like looking at the star on top of the Christmas tree. If the star isn’t shining, something is wrong,” Neeley said.

Now, six panels run the entire system, breaking the maze of pipes into more manageable phases. Direct digital controls allow an engineer at a computer screen to regulate the heat when summer temperatures turn mild.

The self-regulating system is projected to reduce energy consumption by about 40 percent — a savings of $300,000 per year.

“You’ll be able to see the function of the heat-trace in Denver or from the engineer’s office here in McMurdo,” Neeley said. “When we get this thing turned over, it will be a uniform system. It will be from uniform panels that send uniform messages.”

Neeley said the project is on pace to be about 70 percent complete when the last plane leaves for the summer at the end of February. He heaped praise not only on his team but also on the crew that worked the previous winter — in the dark and in temperatures that could reach negative 50 or lower — on replacing the pipe in difficult conditions.

“That would have been brutal,” said LaMee, who wintered at McMurdo in 2005 to work on a different project. “I can imagine it, but I don’t like to think about it.”

The summer winds, which can blow waves of dust down the dirt roads, are plenty brutal for electrician Stephen Nichols.

“It beats you up. … The guy from Arizona they stick outside,” he said, grinning. “It’s all about learning how to layer.”

Despite the conditions, the heat-trace team, mostly made up of rookies to the Ice, is in good spirits. “They couldn’t have picked a better crew. I’d work with any of these people again,” Nichols said.

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs